On February 25, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party announced that they would contest the upcoming Lok Sabha election in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh together, in addition to Uttar Pradesh. The same day, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Bihar chief Lalji Medhkar said he had been instructed by his leader, Mayawati, to prepare to contest all the state’s 40 seats.
Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar account for 74 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha seats.
While some political observers argue that the alliance’s decision will undermine the Opposition’s prospects by splitting the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party vote in these states, others contend that it will make little difference, if any. Polling data seems to support the latter position.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, which will contest the majority of the seats in these states as part of the alliance, won the most votes after the Congress and the BJP in the 2009 general election. But its vote share fell significantly in 2014, with the decline continuing in subsequent Assembly elections.
This is why many observers believe Mayawati’s party will make few gains in these states, save possibly in areas bordering Uttar Pradesh. They see the party’s move to contest across the three states as being more about making its presence felt.
Here is how the party stands in these states.
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s performance in last year’s Assembly election showed its support has waned over the past decade. The party took only two of the 227 seats it contested with a total vote share of 5.01%.
The party had its first electoral success in Madhya Pradesh in 1991, winning the Rewa Lok Sabha seat, which it retained in 1996 and won back in 2009. In 1996, it also added the Satna Lok Sabha seat to the kitty. This remains the party’s best performance in the state in a general election.
Though the party has enjoyed considerable support in Madhya Pradesh’s Vindhya region bordering Uttar Pradesh for nearly three decades, it has not translated into major electoral gains. If anything, its fortunes have waned over the years. In the 2009 general election, the party won 5.85% of the vote but it dropped to just 3.85% in 2014.
This time, the Bahujan Samaj Party is set to contest 26 of the state’s 29 seats, leaving Balaghat, Tikamgarh and Khajuraho for the Samajwadi Party.
“Their influence is confined to just two-three seats,” said Girija Shankar, a political commentator in Bhopal. “It would be foolish of the Congress to have a seat-sharing arrangement in Madhya Pradesh. Just like the Congress has no presence in Uttar Pradesh, these two parties have no presence in this state or in Chhattisgarh.”
YS Sisodia, state coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said it makes no sense for the Congress to have an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Madhya Pradesh. “It is absolutely right when Mayawati says that the Congress is unable to transfer its votes to other parties,” he added. “If there is an alliance, Congress voters are likely to vote for BJP than for BSP which is not in the Congress’s best interests.”
Of the state’s five Lok Sabha seats, Mayawati’s party has some presence in Haridwar and Nainital. There too its influence has been on the wane. From getting 15.2% of the vote in the 2009 general election, the party could muster only 4.78% in 2014.
It is the same story in Assembly elections. After winning eight seats in the 2007 polls, the Bahujan Samaj Party managed just three seats in 2012. Five years later, it drew a blank.
The Bahujan Samaj Party has never won a parliamentary seat in Bihar. The party actually won substantial support in Buxar, Sasaram and Gopalgunj in 2009, but it could not sustain the momentum. As a result, its vote share tumbled from 4.4% in 2009 to 2.17% five years later.
As for the Assembly elections, the party has not won a seat in Bihar since 2005, when it took four seats. So, Mayawati’s decision to contest all 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state has left political observers baffled.
Professor DM Diwakar, who teaches at the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, said the “weakening of communist politics” in Bihar has given Mayawati a chance to “create a base” among the state’s Dalits. “She must be feeling her party can consolidate this vote bank considering that other Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan are concentrating on furthering the interests of their family members.”
Her decision to contest all seats could harm the Grand Alliance of Opposition parties, however. “But her decision could be a pressure tactic to ensure she gets to be part of the Grand Alliance,” Diwakar said.
A senior Congress leader from Bihar agreed that the Bahujan Samaj Party contesting all seats could hurt the Grand Alliance. But they would still not ally with the party, he added. “BSP will certainly cause some damage to the alliance considering Mayawati’s influence in some seats bordering Uttar Pradesh,” he explained.
On the other hand, inviting Mayawati to join the Grand Alliance could embolden her to demand seats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab as well, the leader said. “We are in the process of reviving our party so it will be foolish to let Mayawati enter the fray,” he added.
Reviving the party is precisely why the Bahujan Samaj Party too is contesting across Bihar, said a senior leader of the party who asked not to be named. “‘Why is it that only the Congress gets to revive itself? Why can’t we do the same?” he asked. “It is this arrogance of the Congress that has led to the Opposition not being able to come to an understanding at the national level. The Congress has let everybody down, and the whole nation will have to pay a price for that.”
Asked if the Bahujan Samaj Party would want to be a part of the Grand Alliance in Bihar, he said, “If the offer and the approach is reasonable, then why not. We could then even think about having some sort of an understanding in Uttar Pradesh as well, but only if they don’t continue to demand 20 seats there.”
Failing in reserved seats
What has contributed to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s downslide in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand is its failure to make inroads in or consolidate support in seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the party’s primary constituency.
Across Madhya Pradesh’s four reserved seats, the party’s best performance in 2014 came in Bhind, where it won 4.63% of the vote. In 2009, in contrast, it had received 11.61% of the vote there.
The party’s performance was similarly below par in Bihar’s five reserved seats in 2014, winning between 3.72% of the vote in Sasaram and 1.40% in Hajipur. In the previous election, it had won 16.13% of the vote in Sasaram and 0.93% in Hajipur.
In Uttarakhand, the party won just 2.15% of the vote in the only reserved seat of Almora in 2014 and is unlikely to do any better in 2019.
Asked about the reason for the party’s lacklustre performance in these seats, Shankar explained that it has failed to create a leadership with mass appeal. “If you look at the seats the BSP won in Madhya Pradesh in the past, it was largely because of popularity of leaders like Soneram Kushwaha and Sukhlal Patel,” he said. “They were leaders with mass bases. They could get more than 10% of the vote on their own. However, such mass leaders cannot withstand the dictatorial attitude of Mayawati and they quit sooner or later.”
The party is then forced to work with leaders without mass support, he added, and that is not a recipe for electoral success.